The researchers demonstrated this in five different experiments with a variety of people throughout the pandemic.
Lee said she and De Vries were intrigued by the work because as they went through a pandemic, they began to wonder what drives people to take risks and what conditions make them vulnerable or invulnerable.
“Then we fell down the rabbit hole,” de Vries added.
This is what they call the “friend shield effect”.
“The idea is that we see our friends as shields. When Covid-19 is associated with friendship, we feel safe,” de Vries said — though we shouldn’t.
The first experiment was about junk food. The teachers divided the participants into two groups. Someone was asked to think of a close friend. Another group was asked to think of a distant acquaintance. Both wrote the memories of these people. Then they received an article claiming that eating unhealthy snacks increases a person’s risk of developing severe Covid-19. The article also mentions that hand sanitizers and masks are protective.
Groups were then allowed to shop online at a store that offered hand sanitizer and travel-size masks, as well as oversized Cheez-Its and Twix bars and Mars bars. Despite the warnings, people who thought of their close friends first were more likely to buy junk food than protective gear.
The second experiment divided the participants into three groups. No one has ever had Covid. They were then told to imagine that they were infected by a friend, acquaintance or stranger. They were then asked how much they would spend on health protection over the next two months. Those who thought they were sick from a stranger or unfamiliar planned to buy about the same amount. Those who get sick from friends plan to spend half the money. The experiment confirmed that “positive emotions can make people relatively risk-agnostic and likely to engage in risky behavior,” the study said.
The third experiment involved people who were infected with Covid-19 at some point during the pandemic and knew how they got sick after exposure to Covid. People exposed by friends or family members were much less likely to think they would get reinfected than people who got sick after being exposed by acquaintances or strangers.
The fifth experiment looked at people’s friendships and took into account political ideology. Previous research has shown that politically conservative people make clearer distinctions between who are friends and who are acquaintances.
In this experiment, people were asked to imagine a person going to their favorite coffee shop with a close friend or acquaintance. They were asked how crowded they thought the cafe would be and how sick they thought they would feel after being in contact with people there. They were also asked how they would describe themselves politically. Conservatives believe that if you go with friends rather than acquaintances, cafes will be less crowded and less likely to get sick.
“Shows the greatest friend shield effect on those who have the clearest boundaries between who’s close friends and who’s far away, and is more invulnerable to Covid-19,” de Vries said.
Taken together, these studies seem to show repeatedly that people are simply not good at perceiving risk when friends are involved, even if the risk extends beyond that person in their social circle. This is what the study calls “potentially dangerous irrational bias,” since limited interaction with others is the most protective behavior in a pandemic.
“Risks seem less threatening when paired with positive things like friends or friends, so even at the height of the pandemic, it makes sense to go to your favorite coffee shop with a friend, even if it isn’t, ” said Byrne, an assistant professor of psychology at Clemson University.
Byrne’s research also found that people who considered conservative had a reduced perceived risk of socializing during the pandemic. Partly because the pandemic has been politicized, their strong sense of boundaries about who their friends are, further reduces their perceived risk, she said.
The studies appear to create realistic scenarios, though they are experiments, where “there is a fair link between intent and actual behavior,” she said.
Byrne thinks designers of public health campaigns should keep this research in mind. Staying in touch with friends is good for people’s mental health, but people should be encouraged to meet in safer places, such as parks or other outdoor spaces, she said.
“I think it’s certainly possible to maintain social interaction in the midst of a pandemic, while trying to reduce the risk of infection,” Byrne said.
“We want a more comprehensive response,” Lee said. “Risk perceptions are further ignored in current pandemic strategies. »
“I hope we’ll never need this information in the future, and hopefully we won’t have another pandemic, but if we do, we should take that into account. Perception is important,” Li added.